Sir John Johnson:
The Last Provincial Grand Master of New York

by Dr. Stephen R. Greenberg, KYCH, 33

Provincial Masonry in pre-Revolutionary, colonial America was governed by orders issued from the Grand Lodge of England. Beginning in 1730 four Provincial Grand Masters received their appointments to this high office: Daniel Coxe, in 1730, was the first so honored: Richard Riggs succeeded him in 1737; and Francis Goelet was appointed in 1751.

This office carried extensive powers. It granted the authority to establish lodges in New York and elsewhere in this new land.

There is no record, however, that either of the first two Provincial Grand Masters acted upon their commission.

Francis Goelet, though, in 1751 convened a Grand Lodge in New York City on St. John the Evangelist's Day when his successor, George Harrison, was installed with proper ceremony.

This Provincial Grand Master presided over the Craft in New York for a period of 18 years, and during his tenure, he established Masonic lodges in the city of New York and in towns along the Hudson River. He, also, granted warrants for lodges in Connecticut, New Jersey, and at Detroit.

One lodge which he chartered was located at Caughnawaga, New York. It was St. Patrick's Lodge founded on May 23, 1766.

Its first Master was Sir William Johnson, who was born in Ireland in 1714. He inherited his title from his uncle, Sir Peter Warren, a naval commander who had distinguished himself during the siege at Louisberg in 1745, Sir John Johnson was born in 1742 at Johnstown, New York. His father, Sir William Johnson, was now a respected landholder and a Freemason.

In his early years, Sir John Johnson, bearing the credentials from his father, was sent to London for his upbringing. He was educated in English schools, and in 1767 he returned to America.

Having previously received the three Symbolic degrees in Royal Lodge at St. James in London and having made a favorable impression upon the fraternity, he was granted a commission as the Provincial Grand Master of New York.

Upon his initial visit to St. Patrick's Lodge in New York City, the lodge where his father served as its first Worshipful Master; the lodge records indicate that Sir John was warmly welcomed. The minutes further state that "Lord Blaney, the Grand Master of England, granted a warrant appointing him as Provincial Grand Master of New York. He was congratulated by the members present."

Sir John Johnson was appointed to this high office in 1767. Only scant records exist reflecting the activities of the Provincial Grand Master during his tenure, and it is not known how many lodges existed in his jurisdiction.

It is recorded that St. George's Lodge at Schenectady, New York, was chartered by him on December 13, 1774.

New York, at this time, embraced the far-reaching territory that included a large part of southern Canada, westward to Detroit and even the state of Vermont.

Although no valid records exist concerning the activities of the Grand Lodge of New York under the stewardship of Sir John Johnson, it is known that Peter Middleton was his Deputy, first authority on the course of the Revolutionary War.

Sir John Johnson, by his adherence to the royal interests, was compelled to flee from his home and seek protection of the British army.

This man seems to have possessed little of the amiable character and win-fling ways of his father. As the storms of war were gathering on the horizon and conflict appeared to be an ever-increasing possibility, Sir John continued to devote his energies entirely to the interests of Britain.

Such a course embittered him to his neighbors along the Mohawk River, nor did his malignant influence stop here. He infused the same malodorous spirit into the minds of the many Indian tribes throughout the region. He soon became the leader of a band of Tories in central New York State.

He was commissioned a colonel in the British army and was put in charge of a bloody band of savages and outlaws, who exacted much mayhem across the region.

His Tory efforts were not properly rewarded, it would seem: The princely estate he had inherited at the start of the Revolution was confiscated, and many of his personal effects including the family Bible, that had belonged to his father, were sold at public auction.

A messenger later came from Sir John Johnson to the man who had purchased this sacred book demanding its return for the sum of four guineas. The messenger was sent back with a curt note and the requested payment. The note said simply: "Here are four guineas-give me the book!"

After the war had ended, Sir John Johnson returned to England leaving behind all of his fraternal attachments.

He subsequently settled in Canada in 1784. Here, he held several civil offices, including that of Governor General of Canada. The British government later made him several grants of land in compensation for the loss of his property, as well as to reward his Tory service.

He was succeeded in his title by his son, Sir Adam Johnson. Following the death of Sir John Johnson, the office of Provincial Grand Master existing under the patronage of the Grand Lodge of England came to an end.

After the close of the Revolution, the Masonic lodges already in existence on these shores, having proposed, unsuccessfully, the creation of a National Grand Lodge, were organized into state-centered Grand Lodges, each governed by a Grand Master duly elected by the Brethren residing in that jurisdiction. Such proceedings formally terminated the dominance in North America of English Freemasonry, a situation which has continued to this day.

Sir Knight and Dr. Stephen A. Greenberg, KYCH, 330, is a Past Commander of the following Commanderies: Mizpah No. 53, Oak Lawn, Illinois; Joliet No. 4, Joet, Illinois; and St. Elmo No. 64 and St. Bernard No. 35, both in Chicago, Illinois. He is a member of the Knights Templar Educational Foundation of the Grand Commandery of Illinois, and is the Chairman of the Speakers Bureau of the Grand Lodge of Illinois. He is an Associate Professor (retired) of Pathology at the Chicago Medical School, North Chicago, Illinois. He resides at 418 Huron Street, Park Forest, IL 60466.

Update: July 14, 2014

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